May 22, 2013 (09:05 AM EDT)
6 Tips: How To Speak C-Suite

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Tired of tight budgets, project bureaucracy and career stasis? You might need to stop talking tech and learn to speak "boss."

Alas, there's no Rosetta Stone course or Google Translate option for learning the language of the C-suite. You'll have to roll up your sleeves; we're here to help. It's worth the effort. During a recent webinar on the topic of "talking boss" over at IT pros' social network Spiceworks, 87% of participants said they'd been turned down for a technology funding request during the past two years. Another 64% said they had zero input into their company's planning and budgeting process.

If that sounds familiar, it's time for a language lesson. In an interview, Spiceworks CFO Jeff Dean shared these insights for better communicating with nontechnical executives and management.

1. Remember: The Bosses Have Bosses, Too

"The CFO is not a mythical figure who is 100% in control," Dean said. "They seem like these spooky gatekeepers, and a lot IT pros probably have no relationship with their CFO."

That can lead to plenty of incorrect assumptions about strategy, planning and how decisions get made within the organization. Bear in mind: the CFO and other higher-ups almost always answer to other stakeholders, whether that means the CEO, the board, investors, debt-holders or other constituents. Identifying the boss' bosses lays the groundwork for understanding how the higher-ups are being judged -- a crucial step toward speaking their language.

[ What is a "good" job? Hint: it's not just money. What IT Staffs Want More Than Salary. ]

2. Start The Conversation

Dean stressed the importance for IT pros to open a dialogue with nontechnical management to improve IT's standing within the organization. The best way to do so is not in terms of bits and bytes, but "under the guise of wanting to help the CFO and organization meet their goals and objectives for the year," Dean said. "Part of that is understanding what those metrics are that the CFO [or other executive] measures themselves by -- how do they define the year?" Some common examples might include revenues, operating expenses and profit. But the list will vary by organization and industry; education environments, for example, would likely care more about learning outcomes and other measurements than strict financial data. No matter what measurements your company uses, they become the lexicon of the executive suite.

Along with that, it's also critical to know your company's budgeting and planning process. While startups and other smaller firms sometimes operate under some form of "managed chaos," many organizations have a "budget season." If you're not aligning your IT requests with that calendar, you're less likely to get what you want during the course of the year.

3. Translation Strategy #1: Communicate In Terms Of Business Goals

A firm grasp of the company's goals -- and how progress is measured -- essentially generates the vocabulary of "speaking boss." Budget requests, project plans and other communications stand a better chance of approval if expressed in terms of corporate metrics and keywords rather than technical jargon. In other words: Show, in plain language, how Project X or New Application Y will help meet corporate goals. Save the technical stuff for IT meetings.

"[IT pros] need to figure out what those measurements are so that they can equate back the projects that they feel they need and how they impact those measures," Dean said. "[Don't] express the project in terms of 'hey, this quad core processor is fabulous and I've got this many reads-per-second going to the hard drive now.' That doesn't mean anything to a CFO."

4. Translation Strategy #2: Communicate In Terms Of Risk

Speaking in terms of business goals and metrics is the optimist's strategy; communicating everything that can go wrong, though, can be equally effective. Help the bosses understand IT risks in non-IT terms -- What happens to employee productivity, website transactions or other business currencies if that server or this application fails? Dean offered an example from within Spiceworks: the company's director of IT wanted funds for more effectively backing up the organization's Active Directory deployment. When discussing it with Dean, he laid off the IT lingo in favor of terms the C-suite could easily understand: If Active Directory goes down, here's how many employee hours would be lost.

"That's expressing the risk to me in terms I can understand," Dean said.